Oregon’s Moon Country

Did you know that the NASA Apollo astronauts trained and sharpened their field geology skills in the 1960s in central Oregon?

This excellent 28-minute documentary by PBS called “Oregon’s Moon Country” describes how Oregon’s lava fields and craters were chosen as good training sites. The historical footage of the astronaut field trips in Oregon is combined with videos of their subsequent explorations on the Moon (videos from the Moon!!!) as well as interviews with astronauts, geologists, and other experts.

Apparently one astronaut, Jim Irwin, became good friends with Floyd Watson, who served as a local host in Bend, Oregon. Later, Floyd sent Jim a tiny sliver of Oregon lava and asked him to take it to the moon, and Jim Irwin did (!). (I find this story a little hard to believe.)

I look forward to the chance to visit some of these sites myself – including Fort Rock (a ring of tuff):

and Newberry National Volcanic Monument:

You can learn some more about the Newberry sights with this virtual tour. The area seems to be closed for the season, but it could be a great place to visit next spring!

Railroad terminology

Recently I had the pleasure of taking a free online course offered by the Transportation Safety Institute (TSI) called Rail Nomenclature. As a big train fan, it was a delightful opportunity to learn about terminology related to trains and rail systems and to get more insight into how they work.

The introduction to the course quoted George Bernard Shaw as motivation:

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has take place.”

… which has so many implications beyond just terminology for railroads! I agree!

I learned a lot from this course. For example, did you know that we have both the Federal Railroad Administration (in charge of transport of people (Amtrak) and freight via railroad) and the Federal Transit Administration (in charge of public transit, which includes buses, subways, commuter rail, etc.)? I was intrigued to learn that the U.S. has 47 rail transit systems, 4000 miles of track, and 4.2B trips per year – more than airlines, but fewer than buses. (This is just for systems controlled by the FTA, so the numbers exclude Amtrak numbers.)

The course covered terminology used to describe train cars themselves, parts of the track, signal systems, power systems, and more. There was quite a bit of detail about braking systems in particular – important if you’ve got several tons generating momentum to dissipate when you want to stop. When the train is going more than 3 mph, it uses “dynamic” brakes in which the motors driving the wheels stop and become generators instead. If electrical storage is available, they can serve as regenerative brakes. When the train is going more slowly, it employs friction brakes (e.g., calipers squeeze pads against the wheels to slow their rotation). Both of these brake types are familiar to car owners. However, the train has a third option for emergencies: track brakes, in which the train uses strong magnets to press metal shoes directly onto the rail for additional drag (I guess this would be like toe stops on roller skates :) ).

Another cool fact is that the rails do double duty: not only do they provide a surface for the train to roll on, but they also provide a medium for signaling. This can be as simple as a track circuit: if you run power through a segment of metal track with no train on it, the circuit is closed and the corresponding signal can show a green light indicating the track is unoccupied. When a train enters that segment, its axles short the rails together and current drops, triggering the signal light to change to red. Thus, any train approaching that segment gets an automatic warning of whether the track ahead is occupied, even if the approaching train cannot be seen. No person or computer is needed to actively monitor it. (If power to the track fails, the signal defaults to red.)

More courses are available through the TSI course catalog. This particular class required Flash and was a little difficult at first to get working due to popups etc. However, the course instruction was very visual and fun to follow along – it used Flash to animate drawings of the concepts as they were discussed. I don’t know if they plan to revamp the course, since Flash support ends on December 31, 2020. You might want to check it out now before it’s gone! You get a certificate at the end, of course. :)

Still learning… and finding out

I learned a new phrase today: “Ancora imparo.” In Italian, it means “I am still learning” – what a great message! It apparently is often misattributed to Michelangelo, but actually derives from a letter by Seneca (who would not have written in Italian, but it had been popularized in Italy in Michelangelo’s time). To me it sounds like a wonderful reminder of humility and acceptance of not being perfect at something… yet :)

It’s also inspiring. Truly, what is life if we’re not learning something new each day?

I also like how it sounds like an incantation or a spell. Ancora imparo!

I am reminded of the excellent song by Cat Stevens called On the Road to Find Out. He has an even more explicit expectation of the outcome: “In the end I know, but on the way I wonder.” But it’s great just to be in the process of learning itself. If in the end you know, that just means it’s time to move on to the next question. :)

Touring the Oregon coast

Today I went on a tour: out to the coast, south, and back inland.

I started in the northeast corner (Corvallis), flew west to Newport (KONP), then flew south to Florence (6S2), then inland to Eugene (KEUG) and back north to Corvallis. Amusingly, none of the endpoints are at least 50 nautical miles apart, so none of this counts as “cross country” flying :)

From Corvallis, I flew west over forested hills towards the ocean. Winds at Newport were sporty: blowing from 320 at 14 knots gusting to 19 knots. My runway of choice was 34, and that meant landing from its west side (left traffic), so I crossed over midfield well above pattern altitude and headed out to sea:

It felt kind of strange to fly out towards the ocean and then start descending towards it, with the runway at my back. But that’s what you need to do: fly across, descend in a right turn to enter the left downwind for runway 34. When I reached downwind I could really feel that north wind pushing me along to the south! I turned base and it was actually a little dizzying as I was banking and turning in the air but the entire air was moving south, so it looked like the ground was sliding to my left (which it was). I crabbed across base and turned final, adding a few extra knots for the gust factor. I landed neatly and then had a long taxi down the runway to the first place you can exit. :)

I taxied back to depart on runway 34. I took off, turned left, and here is the view looking south:

I had a very lovely flight south along the coast to Florence. Sunny, waves below, sandy beaches and rocky beaches – delightful! At Florence, however, the winds were even stronger: blowing from 330 at 18 knots gusting to 26 knots. The runway was well aligned (33), but that’s a lot of gusting. A Cherokee was ahead of me and I hoped to benefit from their experience. In fact, after they landed and exited the runway, they kindly warned me of “strong winds on final”. I continued down and prepared to land. This time turning base was even more exciting because I started encountering bumpy air. Final was even wilder, with sudden bumps up and down, airspeed oscillations, and even being shoved to the side and tilted. I didn’t like the approach, so I did a go-around and came back to try again. The second time, the same thing happened, and I went around again. The third time I got a bit of smoother air, and I was hopeful, but then a crazy downdraft, weird tilt to the right, and airspeed varying between 85 and 65 knots was enough for me to throw in the towel. If you can’t get a stabilized approach, it’s not worth it. So I departed for my next stop and will have to visit Florence another time!

As I departed, I flew past this breathtaking forest fire. (You can clearly see what the wind direction is!)

I diverted around the fire and flew on to Eugene, where I was treated to… a towered airport! Wow, it felt like coming home. The winds were from 360 at 14 knots gusting to 19 knots (landing runway 34R), similar to Newport, and I didn’t have any trouble with it. I then taxied back to take off again… this time behind a massive Delta jet! (Wow, it felt so nice to have a ground controller as well!) I departed to the north for Corvallis and had a short, uneventful flight home. Another lovely day of flying in Oregon!

Visiting an aviation museum, by plane

The best way to go!

On Saturday, I flew from Corvallis (KCVO) to the McMinnville airport (KMMV), about 50 miles to the north. It was my first flight to a new airport since moving to Oregon. I was very excited to get out and explore from the air! It was a beautiful sunny day, with a nice bit of wind for takeoffs and landings (10 knots). I completed my engine runup, held short for a helicopter that was landing on a taxiway and kicking up dusty vortices, and then I was off. Flying solo, I got a great rate of climb! I headed up to 4500′ and then called Cascade Departure to request flight following. (I understand local pilots mostly don’t bother, but I love flight following! More information is always good, and if something went wrong, I wouldn’t have to fiddle with the radio to find someone to talk to.) After just a few minutes, they handed me over to Seattle Center as I traveled north.

The left picture shows Corvallis (OSU’s Reser Stadium is a good landmark with its red margins), and the right shows Mt. Jefferson in the distance. I hope to get closer someday!

As I approached McMinnville, I started making radio calls and listening carefully to the plane and helicopter activity. The wind was from 030 at 8 knots, so I planned for runway 4. I crossed over midfield at 1000′ above pattern altitude (apparently folks here prefer 1000′ to 500′, and I’m happy to have more buffer). This airport is tricky because it has two intersecting runways. The wind primarily favors one at a time, of course, but often both are in use anyway (e.g., to do instrument approaches). I’m still trying to find out the best way to handle this (all runways at this airport use left traffic, which seems like a problem to me if two are in use) – I asked a local pilot and he said he just does an extra-wide pattern to try to minimize conflict. Ugh! I miss control towers already :)

Anyway, so I crossed over at midfield and then did a “teardrop” descent to turn around and enter on the 45 for the left downwind for runway 4. Here is what it looks like from the air. I annotated the runways, so you can see that I’m coming in perpendicular to runway 04-22 (and looking and listening like mad for anything happening with runway 35-17).

I landed fine and taxied to the transient parking area, which had tiedown chains all ready!

One of the great things about this airport is that there is the amazing Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum just across the highway! Normally they offer a shuttle from the airport, but when I called, sure enough, no shuttle now due to COVID-19. The museum itself was open, though, so I hiked over (very glad I brought my hat!) and then spent 1.5 hours happily browsing the collection. So much great information and so many great machines! Here I am with the Spruce Goose, which was carefully transported here from Long Beach, CA:

They also have an outstanding history of space flight side of the museum – I could spend many more hours here. There were no crowds and it was very easy to stay far from the few other museum-goers.

I then hiked back to the airport and prepared to return. The winds had shifted a little, so now runway 35 was primarily in use, so I figured out how to taxi there, which involved taxiing across runway 04-22. I reached runway 4 (resisting the urge to announce that I was holding short, which apparently isn’t done at untowered airports) and noticed that a helicopter was landing on the runway (so both were indeed in use!). I waited until the helicopter was clear and then quickly taxied across runway 4. I took off on runway 35 and climbed back to 3500′ for my return, again with flight following. Back at Corvallis, I did another cross-over-midfield-into-teardrop (good practice for me since I rarely had to do this maneuver in SoCal!), landed, and taxied back to the hangar. A delightful day of flying and museum-going altogether!

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